MEDIA REVIEW – A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Author:  Moorhouse Anna
Institution:  English and Cell and Molecular Biology
Date:  April 2006

It is rare for graduating students to foresee where their career paths might take them - a fact that was especially true of Robert Sapolsky. Back in 1978, as a young man recently graduated from college, Sapolsky left for southwestern Kenya to join a baboon troop. His intent was to do a behavioral study focusing on stress-related disease in a wild species; in doing so, he was inducted into the tribe as a low-ranking male. So began a twenty-odd year project where he observed the troop, spending four months out of every year studying the progression of their baboon friendships, courtships, and rivalries.

Sapolsky's third book, "A Primate's Memoir" offers up different fare than either of his previous works, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and The Trouble with Testosterone: it is a look at a younger, more adventurous Sapolsky. The humor that flows through this book is infectious, as he takes the reader along with him through the Masai villages of Kenya, into Sudan with nothing but William Burrough's Naked Lunch for company in the desert, and through Uganda, hitching rides with Somali truckers.

Figure 1

Moreover, all of the primate characters described in this book are wonderfully well-drawn, and the reader at once falls in love with the baboons, just as Sapolsky did himself. For example, the first chapter, which spends most of its pages describing each member of the tribe in lengthy, comic detail, focuses particularly on Sapolsky's favorites, like Benjamin. "Still just emerging from my own festering adolescent insecurities, I had a difficult time not identifying utterly with Benjamin and his foibles," he writes, "He stumbled over his feet a lot, always sat on the stinging ants... He didn't have a chance with the females, and if anyone on earth had lost a fight and was in a bad mood, Benjamin would invariably be the one stumbling onto the scene at the worst possible moment."

Underneath all the jokes, however, there is a darker undercurrent to the book that explores some of the more frustrating aspects of field biology and even some of the violent politics prevalent in East Africa at the time.

In 1982, five years into Sapolsky's baboon project, Kenya underwent a violent coup attempt, in which branches of the air force, the university, and other government opposition groups failed in their attempt to overthrow the government, and were obliterated by the national army. Sapolsky's return to Nairobi that year coincides with the start of the coup, and his description of the city, influenced by his own status as a tourist of the area, starkly counterpoints the slower-paced life in the field and highlights the detached nature of our own Western perspective. "There had not been a new face [in the boarding house] since the coup," he describes, "Everyone had been huddling inside for days, sleeping on the floor to avoid flying bullets, coping with the enforced blackout... Going to sleep that night, it all seemed a fine adventure. The upsetting things I could explain away..."

As for his field work, Sapolsky's research, though not detailed in the book, is discussed with regards to the difficulties involved in collecting data, maneuvering around Kenyan officials and park rangers, financing his projects and, in the end, keeping his baboons alive. All these issues are articulated well and laced with a sincere sense of frustration that draws the reader in even further.

At times, his narrative seems to link together like so many rungs of a ladder. However, some chapters are more like islands, told separately, and without any intention to relate one to another. Some are sad, and some are angry, and some, like the story of his wife's first encounter with the Masai villagers, are simply sweet. As you flip through the very last pages of the book, you cannot help but feel a bit sad that it is all over, as that voice that has filled your head with its dry wit and enthusiasm for so many chapters, has said its piece.